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The Holocaust in Genocide Education

By Cameron Hirschkorn
Published 2019-04-03

Historically, education on genocide has not been prevalent in secondary schools. A 2018 American poll demonstrated that 66% of millennials and 44% of total respondents were unable to explain what the Auschwitz concentration camp was. This issue is being addressed, as some American states direct their schools to teach genocide-related material, and in the UK education on the Holocaust has been mandatory in schooling since 1991. Nevertheless, there remains a pressing issue even in schools that provide this education; namely, that curriculum addressing genocide focuses exclusively on the Holocaust. Even the recent Rwandan Genocide, which resulted in an estimated 800,000 killed in 100 days, is not required to be taught. Within the field of genocide education, there are numerous other examples, such as the genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, and against the Armenians, which caused significant tribulation and anguish, despite having lower numbers of fatalities than the Holocaust. A question that arises from this issue is the potential effects of this anomaly on students’ understandings of the significance of genocide in history.

Before evaluating the potential problems arising from this situation, it is crucial to understand why this is the case. More specifically, why is there more focus on the Holocaust than any other genocide in the realm of education? As previously mentioned, this phenomenon also occurs in literature, and as such examining the education system itself would likely be unavailing. An argument can be made for its uniqueness, accompanied by its severity and recency being the primary reasons for its extensive focus. One major component of the Holocaust which distinguishes it from many other genocides is the fact that Jews were segregated in an entirely legal manner. Furthermore, although other groups were targeted by the Nazis, the clear, systematic focus on eradicating the Jewish population stands out in surviving propaganda and political speeches. In fact, a professor at Cornell University, Stephen T. Katz argued that “The Holocaust was the only true genocide in history” on the basis of these very characteristics.

When taking these points into consideration, the argument for the Holocausts’ uniqueness as a reasoning for focus appears tenable; however, it is important to be able to compare and contrast the formation of various genocides for better understanding. The loss of comparative analysis between similar events in history is distinctly negative, as students are not exposed to the commonalities in the formation or consequences of events in the study of historical topics.

With regard to the question of Holocaust-centred education, the focus on World War 2 in education is significant. Although the topic is no longer compulsory in the UK national curriculum, many schools have continued to teach the topic, which indicates the continued importance of the subject. This heavy focus on World War 2 can very easily explain why the Holocaust is better known than other genocides in schooling. In and around the Eastern hemisphere, there are 57 curricula that discuss World War 2 that have direct reference to the Holocaust.

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Above, countries which educate students on the Holocaust

As is quite recognizable in the image, the majority of Europe directly references the Holocaust in its education. This is a strong contributing factor as to why there is a high awareness of the Holocaust compared to other genocides.

The potential consequences of this can now be examined. If there is reference solely to the Holocaust in genocide education, the emerging belief may be that the Holocaust is the only genocide to have occurred, or at the very least, the only one worth discussing. In this case, various concerns may arise; for instance, there is a risk that students will not be aware of the consistent impotence of international communities when it comes to preventing genocides, as was demonstrated in the Rwandan genocide. Another concern may be an ignorance of how past genocides still impact large segments of the populations today. This issue is better demonstrated in consideration of recent genocides such as the Cambodian genocide, which has left an estimated 40,000 people as amputees. Lastly, without an awareness of the contemporary effects of genocide, or the existence of other genocides, students may be less likely to study, and subsequently raise awareness, of these issues. This would exacerbate the issue in school of having too heavy of a focus on the Holocaust, as those who do go into genocidal research would be quite likely to focus on this particular event over others.

With regard to ameliorating these issues, it is important to acknowledge that currently, there is not an abundance of teaching material when it comes to various other genocides. Thus, although scholars are investigating other genocides, it is necessary to ensure their writing is disseminated into easily accessible material, more appropriate for teaching. Firstly, simply mentioning that there are in fact various other genocides that have occurred is a critical step. Additionally, one should avoid superlatives when teaching as this implies that the Holocaust was the most abominable event in history, which does nothing but simply raise a contentious topic, and potentially cause the student to repeat the same statement. Lastly, degrees of suffering and pain should never be brought into consideration, even if comparing genocides, as this is entirely immeasurable and could have similar consequences to using superlatives when teaching. Thus, so long as these practices are carefully employed, the consequences of the exclusive focus of the Holocaust in genocidal education on the students can be largely mitigated as more light is shed on other genocides.

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